Essay / Theology

Church Membership: Salvation, Sacrament, Strategy, or Seriousness?

Here is a brief thought project prompted by several years of teaching the new members class at my home church (an Evangelical Free Church of America congregation that appeals to serious-minded conservatives). This is not the way I teach the subject in the class, but it is how I’ve been connecting some of the dots about membership recently.

What is church membership? Specifically, what is the theological importance of joining a local congregation, affiliating with a particular denomination, and pledging to be a loyal, publicly-identified member of that community?

It seems to me there are several possible views, located along a spectrum from a maximal view to a minimal view. Here are thumbnail sketches of four positions.

Church Membership as Salvation. Nobody is saved until Jesus Christ makes them members of his body by baptizing them in the Holy Spirit. Believers are incorporated, em-body-ed, into saving union with Christ. By God’s doing we are in Christ (1 Cor 1:30), so that we are collectively his body, and members individually (1 Cor 12:27). This high, soteriological account of membership then goes in two possible directions. On the one hand, you could think of it as identical with membership in the visible, local church, in which case joining a church equals being saved. In fact, in this case, there is no difference between being saved and joining the right church, so your denominational decision comes to seem all-important. Attaching yourself to the right ministry delivery system in an organization that can be identified as the One True Visible Church would then be the most important decision you ever make. If this view were true, your denominational decision would be the last theological decision you ever needed to make, and if you survived the stress of making that decision, you would be rewarded with the relief of not needing to make any more. But this view promotes the doctrine of the church over the doctrine of salvation far too much. It sets the ecclesiological tail to wagging the soteriological dog. The other option is to remember that the kind of “church membership” that equals salvation is the kind accomplished unilaterally by the Triune God, and that it takes place at a level infinitely high above the human, churchly actions of admitting a person to membership in the visible church in a local congregation.

Church Membership as Sacrament. I don’t mean “sacrament” in the properly limited sense of baptism and the Lord’s supper, but “sacrament” in the extended sense that causes people to feel tingly and excited about God’s action mysteriously commingling with human action in created things. Someone who believed in “church membership as sacrament” would accept the notion of “membership as salvation,” but would want to recognize some kind of buffer between divine action and human. The more mysterious the buffer the better, so installing the sacramental gasket would ensure a snug fit with just enough wiggle room. I am trying here to describe a rather vague position, and one that I do not find especially attractive, but which seems to be a live option for many. Plus it starts with an S.

Church Membership as Strategy. At this end of the spectrum, moving toward a less maximal view of membership, the question inevitably arises: “Since the Bible doesn’t say, Thou Shalt Enroll In Official Membership In A Church, why should I?” There are many great answers, and a ministry like 9Marks marshals them well: You should join a church because it will be a witness to others and a and a ministry to yourself: clarity, consistency, accountability, permanence, commitment, etc. The emphasis falls on the good consequences of joining a church.

Church Membership as Seriousness. This view doesn’t necessarily put forward any arguments to justify itself, it just assumes that serious people will do the serious thing, and join the church. To attend without joining is just a sign of immaturity and unseriousness, like hippies shacking up and complaining that “a piece of paper doesn’t make us married.”

And now, with bated breath, you await the revelation of my own view. My actual hope is that these categories are descriptively helpful for you in thinking through your view. But in the interest of full disclosure, and in case you couldn’t tell from the tendentiousness of the descriptions so far, I am writing from somewhere around the minimal end of the spectrum.

If you take position 1 (“Membership as Salvation”) to be a paraphrase of the gospel itself, and then studiously distinguish its divine action from the human action of affiliation with the visible church, then it’s helpful. To be specific, it’s helpful in drawing attention to the chasm between the kind of membership God alone can confer, and the kind available in the church office or at denominational headquarters.

I also think it’s helpful to frame membership as a means of grace: it’s a way that God makes himself graciously present in our lives, and it’s a source of blessing. But “means of grace” doesn’t start with an s, and doesn’t fit the spectrum I’ve sketched. So I declare this limited thought project over.

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